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Constructing national identity in contemporary China

Author  :       Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2013-12-11

China is, in terms of civilization, an ancient nation, but in the modern sense, it is still a youthful nation. Currently, China is in the process of becoming part of the global system while at the same time it builds its unique system and values. On the one hand, individuality and diversity within Chinese society are increasingly strong forces; yet on the other hand, China is working hard to construct a national system and promote national integration.

Layers of historical background

The basis for building modern China’s national identity is constructing, optimizing and consolidating its modern state system and the structure upon which that system is founded. Taking the 1911 Revolution as the historical inception point for China’s modern national identity, the country has experienced two eras with two different political forms during the past century: the first era is the revolutionary period before 1949, characterized by the attempt to build a capitalist democratic republic; the second era is the construction period after 1949, characterized by the goal of building a socialist people’s republic. They both have a certain historical and institutional continuity; however, in the process of building modern national identity in China, the huge differences between them have created a historical rupture.

China’s national identity is a complex overlay of national awareness and national perceptions formed in three distinct historical continuities. The first of these layers is the millennia of Chinese history and traditions that have forged Chinese people’s awareness of being “culturally Chinese” and given them a unique conception of nation; the second is the transition from a traditional empire to a modern state after Opium Wars, during which Chinese people developed an awareness of a modern republican nation; the third scenario is the socialist revolution and construction after 1949, which established awareness of a socialist China.

While the national identity molded by the third historical layer is the centerpiece of China’s contemporary construction and development, this is not at all to say that the sense of national identity which congealed under the first and the second layers is unimportant. The first type of national identity laid the base for common mentality and culture and ensured the maintenance of a nationally unified spirit and nationally unified ideals. The national identity emerging from the second historical layer laid the basis for modern state construction, guaranteeing the modern Chinese state would not grow out of a traditional empire, but from a modern civilization. These two dimensions of national identity were instrumental in preserving China’s internal unification and fostering its modernization and democratization over the course of its ups and downs. Therefore, solidifying a stable national identity in the third historical continuity requires the constructive role of national identities shaped during the first two historical continuities.

Four strategies

Optimizing the national structure by promoting democracy and perfecting the national system are the foremost tasks required to build national identity in China. From my point of view, there are four specific aspects crucial to China’s strategy:

The first task falls squarely on Chinese academia: scholars should develop academic interpretations of the historical logic behind China’s modern emergence and development. These interpretations should be drawn from strict, empirical explanatory paradigms that are also able to describe the historical inevitability and historical rules of the birth and development of a modern state, particularly a socialist China. If they are able to resolve questions of the intrinsic historical inevitability and rationality of a nation’s birth, along with the emergence and formation of the modern state system—that is the socialist system—then such paradigms will be able to find the corresponding historic basis.

Secondly, we need to explain the state and its systems from a theoretical interpretation of value rationality and instrumental rationality. Rationality is the intrinsic force driving the development of modern civilization, and it is the practical outcome which is being pursued in this development; democracy and the rule of law are the tangible embodiment of the modern state’s rationality. Only by achieving an organic integration of value rationality and instrumental rationality can a state become rational. The integration needs not only to be reflected through theoretical reasoning, but also through pragmatic reasoning. Comparatively, theoretical reasoning has more overall value and is able to provide more direction for concrete tasks. Although China has accrued a fair amount confidence in its system, the strength of the theory undergirding this confidence is insufficient. For the construction of national identity, it is absolutely essential to have a theoretical framework of both the nation and the national system capable of convincing people and seizing the masses.

Thirdly, within the system, it is necessary to optimize China’s internal structural relations in order to achieve the coexistence and co-development of diversification and unification. In the modern state system, the demand for freedom and equality has shaped two trends in the trajectory of national development: diversification and unification. The bases of these two trends’ coexistence are an appropriate institutional arrangement and an optimized internal structure, for instance, the structural relations between political parties, society and the state. The key of the relations relies on defining the roles and functions of political parties, the relationship between the central and local structures, and the approaches to achieving equal rights between ethnicities. Practical experience has shown that problems at the level of internal structural relations can have profound ramifications for national identity. Therefore, optimizing a state’s internal structural relations requires an overall national design and plan in addition to the concrete system design.

Fourthly, building national identity necessitates reflection on the basic values of national development and governance policy. Many countries have confronted identity crises in governance, resulting not from their systems but from policy. However, crises that start out as policy crisis can, if they get out of hand, become systemic issues and pose substantial challenges to national identity. Given China’s vast regional differences and the diverse interests within different sectors of its society, simplified policies are altogether incapable of resolving problems; instead, they will ignite new issues and eventually trigger tension between society and the state, the masses and the government. In conclusion, policy makers should utilize two democratic resources—the Mass Line (qunzhong luxian) and the mass work; and deliberative democracy—to improve the flexibility of policy and reduce the possible negative effects.

In the grand picture of modernization and globalization, people and states alike have experienced many scenarios. For the increasingly globalized and interconnected modern citizens, the determinants shaping national identity will inevitably become both a rational structure within the state, and the state’s uniqueness and advancement within the global system. Therefore, in the 21st century, the construction of national identity cannot be divorced from the fundamental acts of nation building and national development. In forging national identity, national ideology exerts a decisive impact; only when national ideology is fully aligned with and incorporated into the project of nation building can national identity truly work. In this sense, possessing the ability to improve and consolidate national identity—an integral capacity of national building—will become the key foothold for a nation to take its stand on the world stage.


Lin Shangli is vice president, professor at Fudan University.


The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 480, July 26, 2013.


  Translated by Feng Daimei

  Reivised by Charles Horne

Editor: Du Mei

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